To Be or Not To Be by
(60 Stories)

Prompted By Get Organized

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“Organize” has been #1 on my list of new year’s resolutions for EVER. Well, that’s not exactly true — it vies for top billing with “Exercise Daily.” But in the last few years it’s morphed into “Purge & Organize.” Because I’m a BIT of a hoarder — more about that in a minute — and the last thing I want is for my husband and/or my daughter to end up hating me after I’m gone when tasked with having to figure out what to do with the myriad bits and pieces accumulated over my lifetime. Because I still have notes that were passed to me in school.

Someone else will just have to do my dirty work, someone without a sense of attachment, someone who won’t feel like they’re severing a lifeline to a lifetime.

I don’t know why I started saving — let’s call it that, as “hoarding” sounds nasty and a little nutty — evidence of my past. I’ve long thought these artifacts might come in handy were I to write about my life, but I’m quite sure that thought didn’t occur to me as a teenager. I’m not just talking about photos, letters, certificates, awards, and important documents like — surprise! — adoption papers here, because everyone keeps those, right? But, look, here’s the insert from my first box of Slenderline Kotex along with a pamphlet with the sweet title “You’re a Young Lady Now.” I needed all the help I could get as it took a friend to tell me that I’m also supposed to wear the pad whilst sleeping and, since we’re at it, once dressed my size 28AAA Gro-Bra — optimism at work — should be worn beneath my full-length slip, not the other way around. And here’s a detailed diary description of my first period and how I wore a red plaid dress with red tights “just in case” of an accident. All I needed was a neon sign and I could have been a walking advertisement.

Ah, here’s a slam book circulated to friends and filled in with boring data — favorite color, favorite movie, favorite song, pet peeve, that kind of thing — then a zinger snuck in at the end, secret crush, which of course no one filled in; a hall pass for me and my best friend; a now petrified piece of Dubble Bubble  gum complete with a waxy Fleer Funny starring Pud; a bus transfer from a ride down Wilshire to the beach with Billy when we made out most of the way there; and here’s the Marlboro pack stuffed with the mascara-smudged tissue I used to dry my tears when Billy and I broke up for the very last time, and the collection of Jonathan and Milly comic strips by Dalia Kvietys that seemed to detail that relationship to a T. Also, a couple McCall’s patterns (because who knows when those A-line dresses will come back in style yet again), my Seventeen Hairdo Guide, and the impossibly sad and smallish bin filled with evidence of my brother Larry’s life. How can I possibly get rid of that? If I do, won’t it be as if he never existed, essentially erased? As it is, I’m the only one that remembers him, that cares to this day.

Sometimes I think I saved everything so in time I might put the pieces together and figure myself out. Not having much of a sense of self, I was more or less sleepwalking through much of my early life. College? Family planning? The future? I’m still working on it. This is why I write.

But there are also the more “recent” adult accumulations. From the ’70s, the packet of letters my first husband and I exchanged every day while he was doing time and that I “inherited” when he was released, letters that still make me doubt my decision to leave him once he started using again, because he’d written so eloquently about how deeply sorry he was for messing things up, how very much he loved me and our daughter, how determined he was to turn his life around. Right. And from the ’90s: Do I simply throw away the first Valentine my second husband gave me, the ticket stubs from our trips to Savannah, Hawaii, Puerto Vallarta, and St. Martin, our marriage certificate, the plastic bracelet from his last stay in the hospital, the guest book from his memorial?

Okay, so now that I’ve dug out a few of my keepsakes and even written about them, I can throw them away, right? Time to purge and organize! But every time I pick something up with the intention of tossing it, I just can’t go through with it. Back in the plastic bin it goes, the lid snapping shut. Someone else will just have to do my dirty work, someone without a sense of attachment, someone who won’t feel like they’re severing a lifeline to a lifetime. Purge schmurge.

Why do some of us write memoirs even though we’re not famous? Who cares about us? We write to tell others we were here. To show them that we lived an ordinary yet extraordinary life, just like them. To share the little things, the snippets of time and place and things. To offer examples of who, what, and how to be . . . or not to be.

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Wonderful confessional Barbara, and as much as the organizer in me says ”purge”, I realize your predilection for holding on to stuff well serves your writing.
    But may I urge you to ditch those old patterns, A-line dresses are not coming back in our lifetime!

    • Thanks Dana! You’re probably right about the dresses, and it’s not as if I’d fit that size pattern any more. But, they do add a wonderful texture to collage, so there’s that. And now maybe you see another reason why I can’t seem to throw anything away!

  2. gbuckles says:

    Okay Honey, now I understand. I was actually touched when you showed me the tear stained tissue from so long ago. Rather than throw all that away maybe we should think about establishing the Museum of Barbara! What do you think?

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    I should let my husband read this. Then maybe he wouldn’t be so hard on me! I thought I saved a lot. You make me look like small potatoes! But I truly understand sentiment, Barbara, and you drip in it. When you read my story, you will understand that I, too, document everything, and have lots of boxes around (and do keep some old clothes), but I don’t think I tip the scale quite as far as you. I do have a few presses flowers and old letters and such. Lots of things from my children that I should probably get rid of (before email addresses for parents, so the lists are really no longer useful). But every once in a while, these old things do prove useful and poignant. So I don’t blame you for hanging on. And you do write such fantastic stories, so if these things help and you have the room, then why not?

    • Thanks, Betsy! Sentiment has gotten a bad wrap amongst writers, and reviewers . . . but it seems to be such a big part of who I am I doubt it’s possible to avoid it. I wonder if there’s a compromise between “sentiment” and “sentimentality.” If so, I hope to find it.

      Your husband would probably have an anxiety attack if he stepped into my room. I’m so glad to learn that you keep the faith in terms of hanging onto old things. Even if they’re not useful, they evoke memories. I love my memories, even the painful ones. I had a friend who burned every picture she had from the 60s and 70s . . . I guess the chaos of the times took a toll on her well being and she didn’t want to be reminded of it. But to me, that would feel like cutting off a limb. We may be able to live without it, but the phantom pain would still be there, still a part of who we are, who we’ve become. Thanks for understanding!

  4. Suzy says:

    Barbara, I love this story, and the way you describe the various items and what they mean to you. If I had read your story before I wrote mine, I might have tried to use that technique. I have so many ticket stubs, and theatre Playbills, and comic strips, and notes passed in high school . . . . I don’t think I saved any tissues or cigarette boxes, but otherwise I’m right there with you. Thank you so much! And the comment from your husband is priceless!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this, Barbara. As I read it, I was filled with envy that I hadn’t saved even more. It’s so true that those of us unfamous folks who are writing memoirs (me for one) hope that after we are gone, someone will care enough to read them and understood who we were. When I write, I picture my grandkids. If nothing else, it is a picture into a time they know nothing about. My goal (who knows if I will ever get to it) is to pair these memories with photos and create a book for each of them. And yet, in my bleaker moments, I wonder if they will read it.

    For some of those things I have saved, I now take photos of them and toss them. My intention is to organize these photos. Who knows if/when that will happen?

    • Both of my granddaughters keep asking me if they can read mine (even though it’s only a Word document at this point) so I feel sure your grandkids will want to read anything you write. I’d be surprised if they didn’t! They want to know who we were before we were Babas or Nanas or whatever sweet name they call us. I have found that the stuff I’ve saved does indeed conjure strong memories of events, feelings, and people I’m quite sure I’d have forgotten by now. I’m not sure photos of them would have the same power, but they’re certainly better than nothing. I know quite a few people who have scant memories of their early history, and it could be because they have almost no memorabilia to keep it alive.

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